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Last Updated: Friday, 18 July, 2003, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Jail authorities resisting 'dirty protest'
Dissident republicans are involved in a protest at Northern Ireland's main jail in an attempt to achieve prisoner-of-war status.

But as BBC Northern Ireland security editor Brian Rowan reports, the authorities are refusing to bend.

Northern Ireland has a long history of prison protest, and its jails have often been battlegrounds on which republicans, loyalists and the authorities have fought.

Prisoners on roof of Maghaberry Jail
Prisoners are protesting to gain prisoner-of-war status
One such battle was the republican hunger strike of 1981 inside the now-closed Maze, which was home to the prisoners of the Troubles.

Among the ten men who died was Bobby Sands, who was elected as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone while on the protest.

All of this happened before the ceasefire and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Essentially these were battles to gain prisoner-of-war status, battles which created unique jails in Northern Ireland.

Inside the prisons, the different paramilitary groups - the IRA, UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando - had their own wings and took orders, not from a governor, but from their "officer commanding".

In the new Northern Ireland - after the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement - the prison authorities and the government would have hoped that jail protests of this type were a thing of the distant past.

But part of that past has come back to haunt the present.


The build-up to that hunger strike of 1981 was a so-called "dirty protest," during which IRA prisoners smeared their cells with excrement.

The tactic is now being copied inside Maghaberry jail near Lisburn, County Antrim - this time by dissident republican prisoners, who are demanding segregation from other inmates.

They want their own wing, but the prison authorities are refusing to meet their demands.

"This is a struggle for power and control, and has nothing to do with safety," a prison service source told BBC News Online.

The source defended the jail's safety record and dismissed suggestions that dissident republicans were expected to share cells with loyalist prisoners.

Maghaberry jail
Dissident republicans began a 'dirty protest'
Figures covering the 17-month period between January 2002 and May 2003 show 57 "prisoner-on-prisoner" assaults took place inside Maghaberry - only nine of these were considered to be sectarian.

The "dirty protest" by the dissident republicans began in late June and involved a group of sentenced prisoners, who were subsequently moved to - what used to be called the punishment wing - the jail's special supervision unit.

Eleven remand prisoners then joined the protest.

Some of these have also since been moved to the same unit, where there are long periods of lock-up and they are denied association with any other inmate.

Up to now, the policy inside the jail has been to take the prisoners from their cells, clean the cells and then move the inmates back.

So far, there has been nothing to suggest that the authorities have any intention of caving in on the segregation demand.

There are about 30 dissident republican prisoners inside Maghaberry, including John Connolly - their "officer commanding" - who was jailed for 14 years for having of explosives with intent.

He was among the first of the prisoners to begin the protest, which has now stretched across a couple of weeks although no single prisoner has been involved for all of that time.

There is some speculation that the jail protest could be escalated, and as long as it continues, there will be fears for the safety of prison staff.

Indeed, officers have been advised to be extra vigilant.

No-one is suggesting that this is a repeat, or is on the same scale, or has the same support as the prison protests of the 1970s and 1980s.

But it is a worrying development and an unwelcome reminder of Northern Ireland's past.

Roof-top prison protest over
28 Jun 03  |  Northern Ireland
Prisoners stage roof protest
28 Jun 03  |  Northern Ireland

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